January 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

The Match Game

Retailers experienced in live chat offer indispensable tips for selecting a chat technology vendor that meets a merchant’s needs.

When evaluating live chat vendors, real-time reporting might not be first on most retailers’ list of must-have features. But it’s important for online pet supplies retailer Drs. Foster and Smith.

Up-to-the-minute reports on chat volume allows the e-retailer to make the best use of its customer service agents, says Laura Arbogash, customer service operations manager.

“Real-time reporting is important because workforce management has to make sure they have enough agents, which can mean adding people or having them do other things if we’re not getting enough chat volume,” Arbogash says.

Retailers selecting any kind of technology will want to ask about uptime, the ability to add capacity and customer service availability. But the questions each online retailer should ask chat vendors will vary with how the retailer plans to use the technology that enables instant message-type text exchanges between customers and agents. A recent survey by chat provider BoldChat found 37% of its clients use chat strictly to provide customer service, while 63% use it strictly for sales or for both sales and service.

Other choices include whether to offer proactive chat-in which a retailer pops up a chat window when the user exhibits certain behavior, such as lingering extra long on a product page-or just offer a chat button consumers can click if they want help. Whether the vendor will provide the chat agents, or just the technology to enable retailer employees to chat, will also affect retailer requirements.

In short, each retailer will have to decide what it wants from a chat vendor before beginning the selection process. Even then, retailers often find that it’s only after implementing chat that they understand the questions they should have asked. Here are five tips from online retailers that have gone through the chat vendor selection process-and then lived with the results.

Make sure the business model fits

For outdoors gear retailer The Orvis Co. Inc., the choice came down to two established chat vendors. However, one vendor’s business model emphasized commissions generated by proactive chats, and, in order to make as many sales as possible, the vendor proposed popping up a chat window whenever users lingered on product pages.

Brad Wolansky, vice president of e-commerce, wasn’t comfortable with that approach, because Orvis had intentionally packed product pages with information for customers. “Just because they’re lingering, doesn’t mean they’re having trouble,” Wolansky says.

Wolansky preferred paying by the chat, not by sales. While the first vendor offered its service that way, its pricing for that model was high. Instead, Wolansky went with InstantService Inc., which met all his requirements and offered a lower price on a cost-per-chat basis.

GameFly, which rents video games online, made exactly the opposite decision, choosing TouchCommerce so the online retailer would only pay when the vendor enrolls new members. “Their business model of paying for performance suited our needs,” says Terri Luke, vice president of business solutions and customer service.

Test from the inside and out

Insist on a free trial of a chat service and use the test period wisely, says Kristin Gilbertson, director of customer service at online sheet music retailer MusicNotes.com, which uses chat vendor Talisma Corp.

Vendors often offer a 30-day free trial, but retailers may not realize that it takes time to train agents, customize chat templates and activate chat on an e-commerce site. “Don’t spend that free trial time doing the administrative things,” Gilbertson says. “Get that done as soon as possible and really use that product and make sure your agents are able to use it.”

A retailer can also gauge a vendor’s service by using chat on another retailer’s site, says Craig Antonucci, director of client strategies at quality-monitoring firm BPA International. “See how those agents interact with you as a potential customer,” he says. “If you’re happy with that, it’s a good indication they have strong support.”

In many cases, vendors host chat technology for retailers, and it’s possible to identify the vendor from the URL that appears during a chat.

Minimize I.T. help

Depending on the company, the department may be called I.T., MIS, IS, information technology or just technology; but whatever they’re called, a retailer’s computer experts invariably are stretched thin. That makes ease of implementation a key differentiator.

When Drugstore.com Inc. evaluated chat vendors for its Beauty.com site, Ron Kelly, vice president of customer service and logistics, looked for a system that could be administered and tweaked without relying on the technology team. He sat down his self-help and chat administrator with each chat tool he vetted to make sure he could manage the system and make changes as needed; for instance, updating rules on when a chat would pop up on the site.

“I said to him, ‘David, please tell me you’re going to be able to own this without having to bother technology,’” Kelly says. “If we had to get I.T. involved in writing new business rules, it would never happen.”

Kelly chose the service of RightNow Technologies Inc., which already provided self-help service for his sites. Going with an incumbent vendor made the integration process easier, he adds.

That was also Wolansky’s experience with InstantService, which was already providing inbound e-mail services for Orvis. Most of the integration work with InstantService already was done. “We didn’t require big returns from chat because there weren’t big implementation costs,” Wolansky says.

Ask for the features you need

For Drs. Foster and Smith, the content of chat conversations is an important source of consumer intelligence, and Arbogash values the keyword search capability InstantService offers. “If something is going on in the industry or company, we want to know how many customers are asking about it,” she says. “We can do a keyword search, for example, on free shipping, and it will bring up all the transcripts that have those words in them.”

For Kathryn Kerrigan, who sells her own shoe designs on KathrynKerrigan.com, a selling point of the chat service from Velaro Inc. was being able to easily customize the chat box; for instance, putting in her own picture in place of the generic image of a service rep, and adding custom messages such as, “A Kathryn Kerrigan shoe lover will be right with you.” Kerrigan, who is no computer professional, says she was able to set up the Velaro system by herself in under an hour. “If I can do it,” she says, “anybody can do it.”

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